Being a mum is hard work, but Zoe Daniel also juggled political protests, floods and typhoons as a foreign correspondent in Bangkok. Cartoon by Fiona Katauskas.
I’m not going to lie to you. Being a foreign correspondent while also being a mum of two small children has been challenging. Without an extraordinary husband, a flexible employer and an exceptional nanny, I don’t think I would have been able to make it work. Here we are though, the four of us, out the other side of four years in Bangkok, all the richer for the experience and, in truth, missing it desperately.
I wrote a book, Storyteller, about our years in South-East Asia, because it seemed to be an uncommon story. In 2014 there are still very few female correspondents with young children working in the field, particularly in broadcast journalism. I understand why it might seem like an impossible juggle. I left my first posting in South Africa pregnant and with a view that I simply couldn’t do the job with a baby. Constant deadlines, unpredictable hours, sudden and often dangerous assignments to far-flung destinations didn’t seem to gel with motherhood.
When I got pregnant with Arkie and then Pearl, I didn’t work at all. After leaving my position as the ABC’s Africa correspondent, I spent the best part of three years as a stay-at-home mum and enjoyed it. My husband Rowan’s work in ABC management took us from Melbourne to Darwin and then on to a journalism training project to Cambodia. I became the trailing spouse, complete with two children under two.
After a year in Phnom Penh the opportunity came up to apply for the ABC South-East Asia correspondent job in Bangkok and I agonised over it. For three years I’d done little more than a smattering of freelance work and I’d never spent any time away from the children.
How could I commit to such an intense role with a three year old and a one year old? Yet those sorts of chances must be grabbed.
So began a chaotic four years. We arrived in Bangkok just as a state of emergency was declared due to the red shirt political protests at the start of 2010. I spent the first couple of months dodging bullets and running around in a flak jacket wondering what on earth I’d gotten myself into, while Rowan juggled the kids with the help of our wonderful nanny Nisha, a tough, independent young woman from Burma’s Kachin state. Eventually Rowan and the children evacuated to Phnom Penh as our street was declared a live fire zone, and protesters and the military faced off in the CBD.
It was a true baptism of fire for all of us. Rowan gave up his full-time job, I took one on, the kids lost their full-time mum and gained a new nanny, and our new home went into meltdown all at the same time.
After the red shirts came the Burmese election, the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, the opening up of Burma, the Christmas Island boat disaster, the Malaysia Solution, floods, elections, a stampede, a plane crash and endless other assignments, all culminating in the devastating Philippines typhoon just a couple of weeks before the end of my posting.
It was hardest when Rowan, working as a media training consultant, starting travelling a lot, too – to Pakistan, India, Indonesia, the Philippines and elsewhere.
Not only were we juggling two children but also two equally important careers. We did our best not to leave the children on their own with Nisha too much, but occasionally I would get a sudden call when Rowan was away and I’d have to leave them in tears and get on a plane while he made his way slowly home to fill the gap.
Even when he was home I’d go to bed awaiting that dead of night phone call. “Hi Zoe, it’s the foreign desk…” And then I’d creep out of bed and file radio reports, and wake staff and pack bags and kiss my sleeping family as I crept from the house, not knowing when I’d return.
And yet, busy and demanding as it was, it’s made me who I am. Those four years covering the major events in our region kept me challenged and developing professionally. Yes, I missed some important family time, but I was still there to make the birthday cakes and put the Christmas presents under the tree and to talk to my children about where I’d been and why.
The kids never liked it when one of us was away, of course. It’s destabilising.
Each family manages this kind of thing differently, but for us the most important thing was to have a home routine and structure that didn’t change too much.
We were able to organise our home life so that Nisha took the lead in maintaining a solid routine. None of that changed if Rowan or I suddenly disappeared for a week or so.
The ABC also made sure that after trips I was given adequate time to reconnect with my family. That can be difficult after something traumatic. It’s hard to return from death and destruction to potty training or children fighting over toys. You need to take it slowly sometimes.
I’ve worked mostly in developing countries where the women have infinitely more challenges and far fewer opportunities than me. Girls are generally behind before they’re even born. I’ve learnt a lot from their optimism and their strength and resourcefulness in spite of that. I like to think that our children – now seven and five – are growing up open-minded, adaptable and independent, aware of different cultures and things like poverty and conflict. As the mother of a boy and a girl, I hope they’ve also both learnt that it’s okay for a mum to stay home or to work in an intense job, or a bit of both. After all, it’s her choice.
Storyteller by Zoe Daniel, published by ABC Books, RRP $29.99.
Zoe Daniel was the ABC’s Africa correspondent during 2005 and 2006 and the ABC’s South-East Asia correspondent until December 2013
Fiona Katauskas is a freelance cartoonist; fionakatauskas.com